Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Warning to all (post)graduate student bloggers: THIS COULD BE YOU

At the beginning of James Morrow's novel The Philosopher's Apprentice, our hero and narrator Mason Ambrose, well on the way to completing his doctoral dissertation, is expressing dismay at the collapse of his supervisor Tracy, who has checked herself into a treatment centre for clinical depression and alcoholism.

(It does not occur to Mason that this might have something to do with her being his supervisor, but we who have supervised graduate theses have our own dark thoughts at this point.)

It is left to a 'glum Hegelian' to steer him through his final revisions, which, while depressing for Mason and no doubt also for the Hegelian, is as nothing to what happens next:

But for me the real catastrophe -- and I'm afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters -- was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated postrationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.

There are certain co-ordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonising the locals. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at three o'clock in the morning, say, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my website ... I suppose he was slumming it one day, ordering his search engine to display all reviews of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voilà: the blistering review I'd composed to amuse myself during the gestation of my dissertation.

20 comments:

Mark Bahnisch said...

Heh!

While I was pretty disappointed with Philosopher's Apprentice, as I said in my review, I enjoyed the campus novel aspects and the philosophy in-jokes!

innercitygarden said...

My supervisor got cancer. I was inclined to think of this as bad news for her (rather than my own personal tragedy) which is probably why I am unlikely to 'make it' in academia.

She recovered, but then my sister got cancer, and after she died I got pregnant. Some theses just aren't meant to happen, sometimes life and death get in the way.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Bloody hell, Innercitygarden, that is quite a narrative. I am very sorry about your sister.

From what I can make out, all the academic goal posts seem to have changed, so you shouldn't write off an academic career if you still have thoughts of one. And the real irony is that as long as one is prepared to be flexible and accommodate changes to one's discipline in the intervening years, then one is far, far better equipped, intellectually and in every other way, to write a thesis in one's 50s or 60s, should the opportunity arise to get back into scholarship simply for the love of it.

Mark Bahnisch said...

It's certainly possible to go back and do a thesis later in life, but unfortunately, in part I think because Unis obsess about being "baby boomer heavy", it's not so easy to get a job in academia subsequently when you're not a young thing any more, as a few people I know have discovered. In many ways, the academic environment is the last bastion of certain types of discrimination, but for rather odd reasons peculiar to it.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, I didn't put that very clearly -- I meant that either (a) one could go back in, say, one's 30s and possibly still go on to get into an academic job or jobs, or (b) one could wait till later life and do a thesis merely for the pleasure of it, depending on one's finances. Creative Writing is probably the only area in academe where you'll find anyone over about 40 who hasn't already been slogging along on contracts for years, and I'm guessing that'll be a short-lived phenomenon as well.

Mark Bahnisch said...

Actually, I think it'd be fantastic if more people did do theses for their intrinsic benefits regardless of age - a lot of what's wrong with the whole experience is its increasingly close articulation with market requirements - something I think is exacerbated by the fact that that market has shrunk so markedly.

It's not unknown for some people in their 50s to get their first academic job, I should hasten to add.

Incidentally, I don't know if there's any more recent data, but the average age in 2002 of getting one's first full time continuing gig in the humanities and social sciences was 39. That's all about the contracts and the wage slavery disguised as "apprenticeship".

Anonymous said...

On the strength of the quotes you've published (and despite Mark's negative review which I haven't actually managed to locate), I'm tempted, as someone who took two goes to just pass Philosophy I at Adelaide Uni in the late 60s, to acquire and read a copy. Thanks, Dr Cat!

David

Kathleen said...

Mark's data rings true to me - when I read his initial comment about not getting full-time work in academia if one isn't a youngster, I snorted.

I don't think it's about being a youngster or a not-so youngster. It seems hard no matter what one's age. Although, if we believe the Oz's Higher Ed pages (and all the members of the department I did my work in), we'll all be in for a job really soon...i.e. as soon as all the baby boomers retire. Perhaps they'll make way for other baby boomers?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, since the catchment area for so-called baby boomers has been growing ever since I first heard the expression, it's quite possible. But history repeats in these matters. When I was an undergraduate, the academic employment curve was blown out all to hell by people born before or during WW2, in the wake of the rapid postwar growth in tertiary education, and we boomers were waiting for them to retire. (One difference from nowadays: they were all men.)

For my cohort, however, it was (with a few rare exceptions) a requirement to have a PhD in order to get more than the most casual teaching job. I was competing with other PhDs for the one-year Lecturer A (or tutorship as it was then) contract that was my first fulltime academic job. But these days, apparently, a PhD works against you because once you get it they have to pay you more. Which of course is one of the factors producing the growing army of untenured academics with unfinished PhDs who keep the teaching arm of the universities going at the expense of getting their own higher degrees.

Mark Bahnisch said...

David, the review of Morrow's book is here.

lucy tartan said...

*whistles*

Pavlov's Cat said...

Heh.

Is that 'whistles' as in "Wow" or 'whistles' as in "Oy, I'm over here" or'whistles' as in "Tum-ti-tum, I'm not sayin' nuthin'"?

lucy tartan said...

tum-ti-tum...

innercitygarden said...

Fortunately I didn't want a job in academia. The postgrad qualification is sadly a requirement for museums, where the jobs are even fewer, the career structure non-existant and the pay well, less than I've had as an admin assistant.

Must go, toddler is taking to me with a bicycle pump.

Pen said...

39 sounds about right to me - unless you are a very lucky bright young thing with solid patronage. I dropped out of my PhD at the end of last year, but for a bit less tragic reasons that innercitygarden. I have become a public servant, and according to all the novels I read as an aspirational academic I should now be embittered, but it's actually quite liberating. You do work and they pay you, and then pay you to take holidays. I keep waiting for the punch line, but it hasn't come yet.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 55 y. o. PhD student about to complete my first 6 months of research. In the last few weeks academic staff and students near completion have been muttering things like, 'you'll gain points by being published in the right journals,' and, 'what are you doing this for unless you want to teach?' Well, sorry folks, I have HAD a career and now I want to have some fun. I'm far from financially secure, just slightly mad and loving it. Oh, and I am doing (sigh) one of those Creative Writing PhD's, but I'm too realistic to hope that the completed work might one day be published. Of course it would be nice but I know publication is a lottery, plenty of tickets are sold, only a rare few win the prize. What I have been toying with is the idea of starting a blog about the whole process of being a Creative Writing PhD. This post, PC, has not put me off, I am just trying to figure out 1) how to better organise my time and 2) how to stay anonymous, not so much to protect myself but those who are genuinely trying to help me.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Anon, you are exactly the kind of person I was thinking of when I talked about studying for fun later in life, and good on you if you are having fun and loving it. If you like the people you are working with, so much the better.

Be careful with the blog though. It would be a terrific thing to do even just for your own writing practice but I can't recommend strongly enough that you write only about your own work and try to keep the university, the staff and your fellow-students completely out of it. Which will of course, take away about three-quarters of the fun, but still.

As far as your questions are concerned, I am the last person on the planet to give advice about (1), though a couple of people (both men, interestingly) have given me some very useful advice about time organisation, if only I could follow it. In fact that is a good idea for a post to write while I wake up enough to face the essay marking.

As far as (2) is concerned, why don't you make up a sort of alternative persona for yourself and write only in his or her voice? It might help you to distance yourself from your immediate situation. Think of your blog as a novel about a Creative Writing student who is not you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mark.

David

meli said...

so um, if i'm generally vague and stick to reindeer and occasional existential angst, will i be ok?

i'd read your blog, anonymous!

you can't do the postpone your thesis for teaching options thing in the uk any more, they kick you out if you're not done in four years.

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